SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

September 23, 2013

Column: College sendoffs get easier

Mary Alice Cookson
The Salem News

---- — There’s nothing like a college drop-off to shake parents loose from our foundations, no matter how prepared we think we are!

That’s how I felt two years ago when my firstborn’s leaving for college happened to coincide with the approaching of Hurricane Irene, which proved to be a pretty significant storm. At that time, I wrote about parents sending kids off: “We hate to see them go, but it’s our job to let them go. So we endure the hurricane — the whipping of the wind, the pounding of the rain. Our hearts ache with the strain, but we stay hopeful. We ride out the storm and, if necessary, we’re there to pick up the pieces. At the same time, our worlds have changed, too, and we need to make things right for ourselves — a whole other challenge.”

As a sequel to that story, the week after dropping my daughter off at college, my husband and I received a call telling us we needed to bring her home to ride out the hurricane until the college was reopened — a serendipitous, weeklong gift of extra time with her! In an instant, I went from grief-stricken to gleeful — until it dawned on me that it meant doing that painful send-off all over again!

At that time, I wrote: “Since our children were babies, we’ve tried to help make life work out right for them. Some call it helicoptering; we just call it loving.”

The truth is, that summer before my daughter started her freshman year, I wasn’t just a loving helicopter parent; I was a rescue helicopter parent with searchlights beaming down, asserting my mom influence and authority. (As most moms know, this doesn’t go over well!) I gathered up every item she could possibly need for college, including a wall calendar with family photos (so she wouldn’t forget us), notepaper and stamps for writing home, and even a small kite.

That wall calendar sat in her desk all year. (OK, maybe my captions were a bit sappy.) The notecards and stamps were returned in May untouched. (Nobody writes letters home anymore, but I hadn’t wanted to believe it!) As for the kite — well, there’s probably no reasonable explanation for why I thought she needed to pack that. Of course, it was never flown. Let’s just say moms act a bit crazy when a child leaves the nest. Instead of viewing my daughter as a grown woman, I guess I was remembering her at age 12. (Hey, it happens!)

Experts recommend taking a hands-off, “here if you need me” approach when it comes to college students. So after my send-offs, I resisted calling my daughter and she didn’t call me. I knew she was OK, though, because I could hear her voice in our house while she was “hanging out” with her brother on Skype. It was almost as if she were home. Almost.

Seeing your child in her dorm room on Skype for the first time conjures up many other firsts — first time strapping her into a car seat, first tooth, first steps, first grade, first cross-country meet, first time driving. ... It’s impossible to imagine life apart from someone who’s consumed your life so passionately for so long, enhancing it with so many milestones. Having made it through freshman- and sophomore-year send-offs, though, I can tell you confidently that they get easier.

Sophomore year, I still helped my daughter pack but backed way off on my suggestions about what to bring. This year, her junior year, I no longer concerned myself with all those details she’s responsible for. If she doesn’t have the laundry detergent, the multivitamins or the lint roller, she’ll survive. We both will! (But I have to admit, her losing her eyeglasses and having her computer crash just a few days before send-off did get my rotors turning somewhat.)

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Mary Alice Cookson is associate editor of Boston Parents Paper and a Beverly-based columnist. She welcomes comments at mcookson29@gmail.com.